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born into trouble as the sparks fly upward
The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band
Born Into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward
Constellation

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Menuck's Law: That which does not cease to be will grow larger and longer.

No, that's not a legitimate natural law -- it's my best effort at explaining the Godspeed You Black Emperor phenomenon. Scientists tell us that by the year 2004, one in every five Canadians will be a member of Godspeed or one of its many side projects. These things have a way of picking up steam. For instance, in the twenty-odd months since the release of A Silver Mt. Zion's He Has Left Us Alone..., the group has expanded to six members and acquired a new, longer name that makes them sound like they've been hanging around with Of Montreal. They've toured Europe on the strength of their material and are well on their way to establishing a distinct identity.

Oddly, while Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward continues the band's exploration of classical sounds and structures, it's also the closest they've come to -- for want of a better term -- "pop". Most of the pieces here are of "manageable" length; only one crosses the ten minute mark, and another tune compensates by finishing in under five. Whereas GYBE favors thundering, electrifying musical peaks, The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra hangs its hat on a framework of mournful, otherworldly sentimentality. The impact is immediate. "Sisters! Brothers! Small Boats of Fire Are Falling From the Sky!" opens the album with a top-quality dirge, its classical elements -- piano and strings -- set on edge by frayed-sounding accompaniment from something that might a kazoo, or a heavily processed violin, or even a theremin. Regardless of its identity, the instrument, its sound at once piercing and inappropriately irreverent, cuts into the listener like a hot wire through butter; it'll make you shiver, or at the very least cringe, though you won't know quite why. The funereal mood continues in "This Gentle Hearts (sic) Like Shot Bird's (sic) Fallen", though this piece gets a more traditional approach. Here, violinist Sophie (or Jessica) and/or cellist Becky repeat a brief, sad figure, underpinned decisively by the warm tones of Thierry's contrabass. Efrim, taking a rest from the piano, gives the tune a gentle sheen of glockenspiel and adds some peripheral, sound-effect-style weirdness. Ultimately, "This Gentle Hearts..." comes across as far warmer than "Sisters! Brothers!", thanks in large part to the rich texture produced by the contrabass.

"Built Then Burnt (Hurrah! Hurrah!)" begins with a sermon-like spoken word segment, which is gradually subsumed by a reverb-heavy guitar/string arrangement. It builds gradually in volume, but restrains its energy until the final seconds, when it explodes into a squawking squall that dovetails directly into the next track, "Take These Hands and Throw Them In The River". This is the album's first big moment -- a jabbing, thrusting beast of a song, ferocious strings and straining, chorused vocals carried on a rich, resonant bedrock of guitar and bass. After "Take These Hands...", you'll be glad for the respite offered by "Could've Moved Mountains...", the disc's longest track. It's a slow-moving, multilayered rock-tinged dirge that adds layers as it increases in volume. Ghost-like vocals and sound effects wander in and out of audible range, and a phantom organ buoys the mournful piano.

"Tho You Are Gone I Still Often Walk W/ You" places the cello and piano at center-stage. The disc's most overtly "traditional" track, it explores a series of haunting themes, at times recalling the neo-classical work of In The Nursery. Contrabass and bass guitar add substance and weight to the tune's shadowy corners. "Tho You Are Gone" also helps to contrast the overt rock leanings of the disc's final two tracks. "C'monCOMEON (Loose An Endless Longing)" is an airier, more melodic variation on the standard Godspeed roaring-wind-tunnel-of-sound methodology, with insistent, steely percussion high in the mix. The tune itself is surprisingly poppy, and -- and this is really weird -- the melody that powers the final three minutes sounds like it was "borrowed" from Manfred Mann's "Blinded By the Light". The biggest surprise, however, is yet to come.

"The Triumph of Our Tired Eyes" is the most straightforward, accessible tune these folks have ever penned. That's neither praise nor condemnation, but simple description: this is a pop song. Its pastoral mix of bass and strings could have come from an adventurous punk record, and even its lovely guitar arpeggio is within the scope of most post-rockers and emo kids. And the vocals -- which fall somewhere between The Flaming Lips and Braid on the "weird and emotional" spectrum -- are straightforward and unaffected; the chorus of "Musicians are cowards" is brilliant.

Born Into Trouble... aptly showcases the group's strengths and weaknesses. If you think you've got the GYBE/ASMZ formula pegged -- repetition of musical figures, slow transition from quiet to loud, etc. -- much of the material here will, in at least a general sense, support your assertion. However, it's also obvious that the group is using these songs as an opportunity to experiment, to push against the constraints of their style, to take risks and fine-tune ideas. When they take chances, such as the percussive blast of "Take These Hands..." and the deliberate understatement of "The Triumph of Our Tired Eyes", the album shines. Let's hope they carry this approach over to the next Godspeed record.

Let's also remember that Born Into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward is the work of six sincere, earnest people; it's the fruit of their efforts to present new ideas, to make you think, and to give you something good. There are hundreds of little sparks and tiny epiphanies within the music, some of which will remain undiscovered after ten listens, or even a hundred. They're there as an insurance policy of sorts; they help the album to grow and endure.

-- George Zahora
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